Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis learned Tuesday that it beat out five other schools to win a contest the White House ran with this unique prize: the 2011 commencement address delivered by President Obama.

The school, which beat out two finalists, won in part because of its efforts to raise academic standards and increase the graduation rate, which jumped from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010.

Obama himself picked out the winner from the three finalists, and Vice President Biden called Booker T. Washington Principal Alisha Kiner to tell her that her school had won.

The other finalists will get a condolence gift: a commencement addresses given by lesser members of the administration.

I’ve written before about my distaste for contests that make a winner out of one excellent school and losers out of other excellent schools for no really good reason.

Earlier today, Tamra Jackson, principal of Bridgeport High, one of the three finalists, called the entire student body into the gym to tell them that they had not, in fact, won the challenge but would get an unnamed Cabinet member sent to commencement instead, the Seattle Times reported.

Jackson was quoted as saying that she decided to approach the news as a victory — being one of three top schools considered by Obama — to avoid a negative response. She gave each kid a small American flag and served ice cream while some teachers did a celebratory dance.

“I could have approached this so they were all crying,” Jackson said. “But I wanted to celebrate today. I told them, ‘How awesome you are. Can you imagine? One of three in the whole nation!’ ”

I’m sure the kids enjoyed the ice cream and the time away from class, but you can’t kid a kid. They know they lost the contest.

All the schools do, of course, deserve congratulations for their accomplishments.

According to the White House, nearly 100,000 people rated the applications of the six-semifinalists on the White House Web site, and Obama selected from the three highest-rated (see them listed below.)

You can see videos of the finalists in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge here, and of the winner, here.

The six semifinalists were:

* Bridgeport High School (Bridgeport, Wash.)

* Wayne Early Middle College High School (Goldsboro, N.C.)

* Booker T. Washington High School (Memphis)

* Science Park High School (Newark)

* Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, School for Creative and Performing Arts

* High Tech High International (San Diego)

And the two other finalists were High Tech and Bridgeport high schools.

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